Theories of Learning
How do we learn?
Theories have been expounded through the ages in attempts to explain the process of acquiring knowledge. The ancients formed theories consistent with their philosophies and in terms of their particular culture.
More recent thinkers tried to veer away from the completely abstract interpretations in favor of answers which could be better related to tangible evidence. Modern psychologists have been concerned with establishing a physiological basis for their theories.
They are circumspect in conducting careful experiments and tabulating results with mathematical exactitude, determined to meet the requirements of a scientific age. Others, particularly in the field of education, indicate that they find the human element somewhat elusive in their laboratory and add to their interpretations consideration of social environment and personality factors.
Since people who promulgate theories have a noticeable tendency to gather evidence supporting their particular beliefs, there is a strong case made for nearly every school of thought. However, there is an undeniable degree of similarity among the varied points of view.
The basic fact they have in common is the simple truth that man does learn. He learns from the moment he is born. He learns through direct and indirect means, through formal and informal instruction. Sometimes he learns in spite of instruction. Sometimes he applies himself assiduously with discouraging results and other times he suddenly knows with little or no apparent effort. Sometimes he learns to be socially useful, sometimes he acquires skills which are adjudged harmful and negative. But he learns.
Non-human animals learn too, and rats and dogs have contributed greatly to the formation of theories of learning. Machines have been devised to take over many of our thinking processes but the business of learning goes on in one form or another, in the course of growing and participating in life.
But, how do we learn?
True to his principles, Socrates thought of learning and of knowledge as part of universal and eternal verities. For him, man was simply an example of the truth of eternal knowledge. But the mechanism behind man’s personal awareness of this knowledge was something that Socrates did not attempt to explain.
For Plato the idea was supreme; only reason counted for anything. As for experience, it was merely a shadow of the idea of reality. Sensations and opinions, he held, are passing and unreliable. The immaterial essences- Forms or Ideas-were absolute for him, containing the only ultimate truth.
While the Greeks are philosophically stimulating, they fail to answer our question. However, we must consider the culture which produced such theories. Here was a society in which the individual counted for little, in which slaves were bought and sold, in which human life was cheaply held.
As a result, a philosophy developed which expressed the need for security and permanence. Almost inevitably, on the basis of this explanation, abstract ideals of truth which exist above and beyond the individual were developed as absolutes.
Theories of Learning (Part 2)
Consider the mania for efficiency and speed in all areas of contemporary life. Is it surprising that the same influences are felt in the fields of learning and self-development? Consider the ever-increasing swarm of push-buttons which almost seem to run our lives.
There are so many areas in which physical effort has been reduced to a minimum that perhaps we are ready to eliminate mental effort as well. The easy way is always the tempting way and, if the results are even better, why not take advantage of a time and labor-saving device?
In the area of psychotherapy we find there is a widespread need for professional help and, once again, we observe the temptation to do it the modern, easy way, to save time and money and effort. There is certainly a special appeal to those people who feel that they don’t need extensive professional guidance, since they have only a few minor difficulties to work out. Whether or not this self-evaluation is correct, sleep-learning offers man an opportunity to take the easy way out.
Finally, in this age when education is nearly universal, the amassing of facts is considered an important achievement and, in the cases of the now-defunct quiz shows, a lucrative one. We are supposed to know something about everything-and there is so much to know. There just isn’t enough time during waking hours. Often we are too tired to even care about improving ourselves.
Yes, sleep-learning has much modern appeal.
Still, only by knowing how we learn can we examine the effectiveness of sleep-learning. There is not, of course, complete agreement among authorities but if we can unearth points on which they do agree then we can evaluate sleep-learning against accepted theories.
Looking back a few centuries (1690), we find John Locke challenging the old doctrine that men come into the world with a set of ideas and a particular character stamped on their minds. He argued that knowledge was derived from experience, the result of ideas acquired through the five senses, and from inner experiences of the mind which operate in considering the ideas derived from sensations.
Only what can be perceived exists, according to George Berkeley (1710), and various combinations of perceptions come to signify objects or ideas. The perceiving is done by a distinct entity, the self, and nothing can exist except in the mind which perceives it. Berkeley asserted that all reality was mental and all nature a manifestation of God.
David Hume later (1748) affirmed that there was no knowledge beyond the evidence of the senses, that there was no such thing as cause and effect and that experience was primary in all thinking. He divided the mind’s perceptions into impressions (sensations, passions, emotions ) and ideas by which he meant the faint images of impressions in thinking and reasoning.
A pioneer in psychological research, Johann Friedrich Herbart (1816) held that the mind is a blank on which experience writes, man learns by means of perception of the sense organs and by the process of association. Herbart attempted to explain psychic phenomena in terms of simple ideas and looked forward to a future system of psychodynamics determined by mathematical laws.
Theories of Learning (Part 3)
Wilhelm Wundt, who founded the first psychological laboratory (1879), denied rationalism. He devised experimental methods for measuring reactions to physical and physiological changes, effects and stimulations. But he did not consider the physiological aspect to be all of psychology. He was concerned with introspection, with analysis of “internal experience.”
He was convinced that the combination of the will, and emotional states closely connected with it, was more important than sensations and ideas in the explanation of psychological experience.
Another physiological-psychological approach was presented by Herbert Spencer (1855), who saw man as an organism adapting to its environment. He felt that sensations are man’s natural guides and his most trustworthy ones-“when not rendered morbid by long-continued disobedience.” This thought derived from his belief that man’s senses were formed in accordance with the all-embracing law of evolution from a less perfect to a more perfect state.
William James knew both Spencer and Wundt, but rejected their principles (1890). He theorized that all learning begins in experience, that knowledge comes through an act of consciousness motivated by necessity. Thinking, he said, is made up partly of perception and partly of idea formation. It is an intensely personal thing, highly influenced by emotion. It was James who first offered the ‘stream of consciousness hypothesis.’
He said, “Objects once experienced together tend to become associated in the imagination, so that when one of them is thought of, the others are likely to be thought of also, in the same order or sequence as before. The laws of motor habit in the lower center of the nervous system are disputed by no one. A series of movements repeated in a certain order tend to unroll themselves with particular ease in that order for ever afterward. Number one awakens number two, which awakens number three, and so on, until the last is produced. A habit of this kind, once become inveterate, may go on automatically. And so it is with the objects with which our thinking is concerned.”
Aristotle also described the nature of associative learning and explained the phenomenon of recall in terms of its laws. All psychologists since Aristotle have observed the rule of association by contiguity in time. Popular proverbs also bear out the observations: a burnt child dreads the fire; a person once bitten is twice shy; etc. Berkeley referred to “an habitual and customary connection” between ideas, one being the occasion for the next. Hume wrote of a “gentle force” by which one idea “naturally introduces another” if these ideas have previously occurred together.
James Mill (1829) concurs with these theories: “Our ideas spring up, or exist, in the order in which the sensations existed, of which they are copies. That is the general law of the ‘association of ideas/ by which term nothing is here meant to be expressed but the order of occurrence.” Mill felt the association of ideas could be either concurrent or successive, and that the association’s strength was measurable in terms of its permanence, its certainty and its “facility.” He further believed that frequency and vividness determined the strength of an association.
Theories of Learning (Part 4)
David Hartley (1849) stated that there was physical basis for association of ideas. This physical basis was in the brain, he contended, and the process of association was interlocked with bodily processes and not with ideas alone.
He also believed that mental life was composed of sense impressions which left copies of themselves in the form of simple ideas or sensations, and, through association, these impressions gained the ability to call up other ideas.
Alexander Bain, an evolutionist and contemporary of William James, described (1855) behavior in terms of reflex and instinct. He noted that “Actions, Sensations and States of Feeling, occurring together or in close succession, tend to grow together, or cohere, in such a way that, when any one of them is afterwards presented to the mind, the others are apt to be brought up in idea.” Bain was interested in determining the conditions of learning. He would have liked to be able to explain retention as a neurological process rather than as a mental function.
A pioneer in objectivity, Edward L. Thorndike, the father of the theory of “connectionism” (1914), believed that simple association was not enough to insure future connection, but that a desirable effect was necessary to confirm it. His concept was that there must be contiguity, that if ideas act together they make up another intelligible association, and we then have a stimulus and response association.
The hypothesis from which he started was that a neural bond was formed. He conducted experiments to find out by what forces the learning process was conditioned when it was regarded as a connecting of bonds. Among his conclusions was the conviction that the learner’s response to a given stimulus-other things being equal-depends upon the “strength of the connection” between them. Thus, the importance of ‘stamping in’ in learning.
Thorndike listed numerous laws to state his theory.
- The Law of Effect states that, through use, the neural bonds are strengthened but that painful association decreases their strength.
- The Law of Exercisestates that a modifiable connection increases the strength, the lack of such connection will decrease strength.
- The Law of Readiness deals with motivation and the explanation that it is satisfying to the subject to conduct when the conduction unit is ready.
- The Law of Multiple Response describes trial and error learning.
- The Law of Attitudes, Dispositions and ‘Set* claims that these conditions affect learning.
- The Law of Partial Activitypoints out that there is a choice of elements that will lead to the aim.
- The Law of Assimilation or Analogy states that the response is adapted from the experiences of the past.
- The Law of Associative Shifting derives from study of the conditioned response.
Thorndike later offered an altered Law of Exercise which stated that mere repetition was not enough to insure learning, but that the degree of satisfaction involved must be given much importance. He also changed the Law of Effect to state that reward strengthens the connection, but punishment weakens it very little.
Theories of Learning (Part 5)
Further, as an argument against the Gestaltist, who declared that patterns are the basis of the learning process, Thorndike described the “spread or scatter” phenomenon. Each connection, he said, affects all the other connections, past or future, according to satisfaction. He based this explanation on biological foundations.
Another law had to do with Transfer of Learning and stated that a successful response could be gained to a new stimulus, if this new stimulus was similar to a past one. Since learning is transference, adjustments are possible and further learning can take place.
Recent research tends to discount Thorndike’s theory of neural bonds, but much of what we accept today about learning still rests on his theoretical structures. There is little argument with his pronouncement that:
It is the first principle of education to utilize any individual’s original nature as a means of changing him for the better. . . . All schemes of improving human life must take account of man’s original nature, most of all when their aim is to reverse or counteract it.
An interesting postscript for our purpose is that Thorndike considered his laws of learning applicable to animals as well as humans. At least one sleep-learner felt the same way-the man who taught his parakeet its huge vocabulary.
Another school of thought about how we learn is that of conditioning. Its belief is that the nervous system is the basis of conditioning. This theory is a continuation of Ivan Pavlov’s studies of the physiology of learning. Pavlov’s experiments, with his celebrated dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, showed that conditioning can bring about reflexive responses to stimuli other than the originally effective ones. The conditioned reflex is explained as being the result of impulses traveling along the brain’s neurons in chain fashion and creating a “reflex arc.”
John B. Watson espoused behaviorism (1925) and asserted that learning is a simple matter of stimulus and response. For example, fear is learned or unlearned. It is a simple matter of conditioning.
E. B. Guthrie (1952) developed Bain’s idea of contiguity. He held that: “A combination of stimuli which has accompanied a movement will on its recurrence tend to be followed by that movement.” For him, response is divided into movement (motor and glanular phenomena) and act (class of movements expressed through results). He sees learning as action as the result of repetition.
He finds that a combination of movement helps to bring about the response, and Guthrie writes, “Effective practice is conducted in the general situation in which we desire the future performance to be given/’
Logically then, Guthrie would understand that sleep-learners would well be able to recall what they have learned while asleep.
Guthrie felt that forgetting is the inhibition of a response by a competing one, that habit-formation is linked to successful acts and that motivation affects the process since the last response modifies the situation and makes learning possible. This coincides with the rote-learning-plus-motivational approach of the sleep-study school.
Theories of Learning (Part 6)
Clark L. Hull (1943) formulated a system of behavior highlighted by the principles of habit-formation. He stated that the value of habits is dependent on their usefulness to the individual.
In Hull’s system, feeling and consciousness are not of great importance. He makes no distinction between emotional and other forms of behavior. In his careful mathematical description of human functioning, everything is behavior.
In his later work, Hull stated that “learning is a process by means of which the vertebrate individual survives in a world characterized by needs.”
The keynote to his explanation of learning is reinforcement and his theory is founded on order and arrangement. Learning is the means by which the organism comes to perceive its world, through the stimuli to its neurological structure. Thus, in Hull’s view of habit-formation, learning is conditioning-planning for proper responses, and need is the one for action. Drive gives direction to the response, satisfaction of need leads to reinforcement of stimulus-response connections.
Hull’s students, Dollard and Miller, carrying on the idea that human behavior is learned, say that maladjustment is a manifestation of inadequate learning. For which we can no doubt substitute inadequate conditioning. In this connection, we are reminded again of Huxley’s Brave New World and the responsibilities of the promoters of sleep-study and sleep therapy.
If the behaviorists are right, the speculation arises that perhaps all of humanity could be beautifully adjusted into an appalling uniformity.
Norbert Wiener, author of Cybernetics, attempts to relate human beings’ learning mechanisms to the workings of electronic calculators, speaking of the feedback principle, which “means that behavior is scanned for its result, and, that the success or failure of this result modifies future behavior.” This implies an integrating process measuring success and failure which will decide the response.
B. F. Skinner (1932) observed behavior and examined habit-building in order to find laws of behavior. The strength of the reflex was his basis of measurement. Although he did not use equations, he too devised numerous laws, including one measuring a threshold of stimulus intensity below which there is no response; one which indicates a latent period between stimulus and response varying with the intensity of the stimulus; one which describes responses persisting after the stimulus has ended, and one which states a similar effect when a stimulus is prolonged as when the intensity of the stimulus is increased.
These are the static laws. He also lists dynamic laws of reflex strength: the law of the refractory phrase, stating that the strength of the reflex is low or zero immediately after it has been evoked; the law of reflex fatigue, stating that the strength of the reflex diminishes during repeated elicitation, and returns to its former strength during inactivity; the law of facilitation, which states that a second stimulus, not capable by itself of eliciting a response, may increase the strength of a reflex; and the law of inhibition, which is that a second stimulus which has no other relation to the effector involved may decrease the strength of the reflex.
Theories of Learning (Part 7)
Skinner too denies emotions and sees the laws of behavior as existing independently. Perception comes about through the reduction of drives. The effective stimuli lead to reinforcement of the desired response, and repetition or prolongation is all to the good.
The Gestalt explanation of learning stems from the premise that every phenomenon of nature is a whole, not merely a sum of its parts. This whole is the Gestalt. The whole is, in fact, greater than the sum of its parts. Everything is seen in relation to its background, as a figure within a framework, and it is the framework that gives meaning to the figure.
We learn in patterns, not in separate parts. Each experience initiates a trace process, and in a different part of the brain there already exist traces which are the results of previous experience. These traces represent two different phases of learning. This system is held to obey the laws of organization. The interaction of traces results in an adjustment of forces, and the organization is continually changing to expand desirable Gestalts.
In time, the Gestaltists say, the compound trace organization transcends individual experiences and may influence their acceptability. Memory is a process by which the traces in the brain undergo certain changes. Rote-memorizing is a conditioned reflex technique, but understanding-apprehending relations, insight, etc.-makes recall more effective.
The Gestaltists say there is essential unity in perception, that “form” in experience is grounded in the physical world. Their claims are that intellectual processes operate as a whole in gaining insight into patterns-patterns which the Gestaltists assume exist in the universe; that the whole organism responds in a unified way from beginning to end in the learning process; that the organism reacts to total situations and proceeds from the whole to the part and from the general to the specific (the assumption again is that the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts); and that the learning process is one of reorganization-in other words, of forming proper Gestalts.
Motivation is considered important, along with the concept of the whole. This school of thought is a revolt against the stimulus-response interpretation of learning. They deny vehemently that reflexive action is the basis of learning, and find association too mechanistic. It is the quality of the experience, they claim, that makes the experience intelligible.
The process of learning, then, according to the Gestaltists, is one of perpetual patterning. Learning occurs when a stimulus pattern is perceived along with its significance for tension reduction. Forms of behavior which are consistent become part of habit responses. The major concern is with personality and integration.
One of the versions of the Gestalt school is Raymond H. Wheeler’s “organismic” learning, which combines energy and subjective designations. Learning is measured in terms of reduction of tension and personality development, and improvement is “at the level at conscious behavior”; it is not merely a result of conditioning, but a result of the relationship between the stimulus pattern and the learner’s level of insight.
Theories of Learning (Part 8)
A theory of purposive learning is presented by Edward C. Tolman (1932). He too is preoccupied with behavior and the need for adaptation. His theory is based on association of stimulus situations with concepts, perceptions and expectancies.
He is more concerned with achievement than with the means of achievement. He accepts the ideas that associations occur as a result of contiguity of stimulus pattern and perception or cognition, but he is most interested in the nature and complexity of the response.
He describes six kinds of learning:
- Cathexes,“the acquisition of a connection between a basic drive like hunger and a specific type of goal object” like a particular food, or a negative drive like fright along with a specific object of fear
- Equivalence beliefs, “a connection between a positively cathected type of goal-and a sub-goal,” or the equivalent negative
- Field expectancies, once called “sign-Gestalt expectation,” the acquisition by the organism of “sets” or “field expectancies” on successive experiences in a particular environment which makes possible short cuts or roundabout routes
- Field cognition modes, meaning that field expectant is dependent not only upon memory but on perception and inference as well
- Drive discriminations,the ability to distinguish between different drives
- Motor patternsif learned (conditioned) when the patterns lead to the desired goals
Tolman sees goals and configurations in a cause-and-effect sequence. The social environment is the stimulus, and rewards are of great importance. Practice leads to acquiring the “feel” of the situation.
Norman Maier (1931) offers a theory of frustration along with an explanation of learning. He found that frustration tended to freeze or fixate a response, even if punishment was the ultimate result of the response. He concluded that frustration is an aspect of behavior completely separate from learning. He divides learning into two categories, associative and selective, the first in terms of conditioning, the second in terms of the learning what happens in the course of solving a puzzle, where the outcome provides the direction of the learning.
Behavior can be altered in four ways, he says: in the “extension of a response (conditioning) so that it will be expressed in a variety of situations,” in changing the consequences of an action; in “a change of perception or stimulus interpretation”; and in “insightful problem solving” in which the goal influences the nature of the insight and resulting behavior; (this differs from trial-and-error learning in that insight rather than past experience directs the solving of the problem).
Maier describes behavior changes as: stimulus-response reactions “determined by neural connections only”; motivated behavior determined by the consequences of such behavior; and frustration, not guided by consequences but able to be changed by guidance, possibly because of associations acting through neural connections, and in this explanation the fixation response appears to be similar to association by contiguity.
A dynamic approach known as functionalism has been offered by F. S. Robinson. The factors which he considers important in learning are contiguity, assimilation (meaning that one activity prompts another), frequency and intensity. He too is concerned with adaptation, and his interpretation of the mind is based on neural action. Man’s intellect causes movements in the direction of adjustment, and environment is a major factor. Practice is extremely important, according to this theory, but operational personality factors are not considered.
Theories of Learning (Part 9)
Thorpe and Schmuller (1954) have attempted to draw from all of these theories a flexible, integrated understanding of the principle of learning.
Searching for a definition, they find that, stated simply, learning is a form of behavior in the acquisition of facts, that it is a social and educational process involving both heredity and environment, and then they go on to suggest as an acceptable statement that “Learning … [is] … the total changes which occur in an individual as a result of his responses to representative stimuli, present or past.
This definition includes both the formal aspects of learning of one kind of another which takes place throughout the span of life.”
They believe that there is a relation between personality and the stimulus-response role of learning. Noting that all the theories of learning in acceptance today have grown out of scientific movement and have been experimentally verified, and noting also that individuals vary from the accepted norms, they suggest principles of learning drawn from all schools of thought. These include motivation, adjustment to the level of maturation, pattern learning (the importance of meaningful relationships), evaluation of progress, satisfactory personality adjustment, and social growth.
John Dewey saw learning as an experience, and was concerned with the integration and use of knowledge. His theory has been described as problem solving. Adding the social environment to the individual physical apparatus, as equally important to the process of learning, he looked forward to a time when this process would be one in which the functions of the human organism are used in such a way as to make learning socially effective.
It can now be demonstrated that the theory and practice of sleep-learning basically coincide with the accepted theories of the psychologists of learning. In both theories, major stress is given to the primary needs in learning of repetition, reward, motivation and association. Indeed, the direct approach of sleep-learning utilizes these basic concepts to a much more valuable degree than heretofore possible in the science of learning.